Uncommon Knowledge

The Honorable Senator's buddies

Surprising insights from the social sciences

By Kevin Lewis
November 7, 2010

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These days, party affiliation seems to be the best predictor of whether a politician supports or opposes a particular policy. However, special interests still manage to drive a lot of votes, and one special interest — the politician’s own social network — has a measurable effect. Researchers at Harvard Business School found that members of Congress are significantly influenced by colleagues who happen to be alumni from the same school, especially if a vote is close and less important to home-state business interests. For votes that are important to home-state business interests, having more executives who went to the same school as the politician makes it more likely that the politician will vote in their favor. The importance of social networks even plays out on the Senate floor: How a senator votes is influenced by those senators who are seated nearby, above and beyond the influence of party and state.

Cohen, L. & Malloy, C., “Friends in High Places,” National Bureau of Economic Research (October 2010).

Just don’t make a single mistake
Women have slowly but surely advanced into traditionally male-dominated occupations, and some men have ventured into traditionally female-dominated roles. Yet, according to a new study, both women and men are in a precarious position in these domains. When people were asked to rate the competence of a male president of a women’s college or a female police chief — roles that don’t fit stereotypes — they were much less forgiving when he or she made a mistake. The same reaction occurred in the case of a female CEO of an aerospace engineering firm and a female chief judge.

Brescoll, V. et al., “Hard Won and Easily Lost: The Fragile Status of Leaders in Gender-Stereotype-Incongruent Occupations,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

Go easy, he only hurt 10,000 people
Our legal system is grounded in notions of due process and reasonableness. Unfortunately, new research suggests a disturbing paradox: People tend to assign less punishment for harm to more people. When asked to judge fraud, people reacted more harshly to the offender if he had defrauded three people than if he had defrauded 30 people. Likewise, when asked to judge the culpability of executives of a food processing company who had knowingly shipped tainted food, people reacted more harshly if there were two victims than if there were 20 victims. People were also more willing to go along with a coverup if there were more victims. These effects were attenuated — though not reversed — if one of the victims was specifically identified. Nevertheless, an analysis of US jury verdicts in toxic liability cases revealed the same pattern: a significant negative correlation between the number of plaintiffs and punitive damages.

Nordgren, L. & McDonnell, M.-H., “The Scope-Severity Paradox: Why Doing More Harm Is Judged to Be Less Harmful,” Social Psychological and Personality Science (forthcoming).

The look of a lawyer
Maybe you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but you’d be smart to judge a lawyer from his yearbook photo. Ratings of “facial dominance” and “maturity” of the managing partners of top US law firms from both their college yearbooks and current professional photos were associated with the profitability of their firms. It’s not clear whether faces just happen to reflect a personality already destined to be successful, or whether the faces themselves, in fitting a certain stereotype of success, help open doors.

Rule, N. & Ambady, N., “Judgments of Power from College Yearbook Photos and Later Career Success,” Social Psychological and Personality Science (forthcoming). Boys, girls, and competition

Males are seen as more competitive, especially in areas like sports, business, and technology, and this competitive attitude is often credited for their relative success. But does this supposed competitive advantage actually exist? Several economists ran an experiment with elementary school students to find the answer. Each student was matched against another student to see who would get the most questions right on a timed math quiz. Students were re-matched and re-quizzed several times in the course of an hour. Boys did significantly better on the first quiz, but then their competitive advantage petered out. They did no better than the girls on subsequent quizzes. In fact, boys’ superior performance on the first quiz couldn’t even be reproduced in another trial two weeks later. So while the boys seemed to experience an initial jolt of competitive juices, the spur of competition doesn’t appear to be a durable explanation for the gender gap. Still, as the authors note, if boys seek out competitive situations more than girls do — even if boys aren’t inherently better competitors — that may be enough to give them an edge.

Cotton, C. et al., “The Gender Gap Cracks Under Pressure: A Detailed Look at Male and Female Performance Differences during Competitions,” National Bureau of Economic Research (October 2010).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at